Plastic pervades modern life, and menstruation is no exception.
Plastic pervades menstruation
Plastic pervades modern life, and menstruation is no exception. Since the middle of the 20th century, many tampons and menstrual pads have contained somewhere between a little and a lot of plastic in their basic design—sometimes for reasons that “improve” the design, but often for reasons less crucial.
Getting a handle on how much plastic waste comes from menstrual products is tough, in part because it's labeled as medical waste and does not need to be tracked, and in part because so little research has even looked at the scope of the problem. But rough estimates for the likely output are staggering: In 2018 alone, people in the U.S. bought 5.8 billion tampons, and over the course of a lifetime, a single menstruator will use somewhere between 5 and 15 thousand pads and tampons, the vast majority of which will wind up in landfills as plastic waste.
To dislodge plastic from menstrual care, though, will take more than design disruption, because the reasons plastic has lodged itself so deep in the design in the first place are tangled in a web of culture, shame, science, and more.
The plastic period problem
Most American women will menstruate for about 40 years in total, bleeding for about five days a month, or about 2,400 days over the course of a lifetime—about six and a half years, all told.
All that menstrual fluid has to go somewhere. In the U.S., it usually ends up in a tampon or on a pad, and after their brief moment of utility, those products usually end up in the trash.
The most common menstrual products are a veritable cornucopia of plastic. Tampons come wrapped in plastic, encased in plastic applicators, with plastic strings dangling from one end, and many even include a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent part. Pads generally incorporate even more plastic, from the leak-proof base to the synthetics that soak up fluid to the packaging.
What's plastic in a pad?
By the 1960s, chemists were busily developing sophisticated plastics and other synthetics. The technologies leapt forward so quickly that manufacturers found themselves searching for new markets into which they could incorporate their new materials. One of the markets they found was menstrual products.
Pad designs began to incorporate thin, flexible, leak-proof polypropylene or polyethylene as the base (or, in patent terms, the “backsheet”). Advances in sticky-stuff technology bolstered the use of flexible plastics, allowing the pads to be attached to underwear directly rather than hanging off a complicated, bulky belt system. By the late 1970s, designers realized they could make flexible plastic “wings” that would wrap around underwear and anchor a pad in place. And designers found ways to weave thin polyester fibers into the squishy part of the pad to wick fluid away into the absorbent cores, which were getting thinner as superabsorbent materials grew more sophisticated.
Packaging for privacy
By the middle of the century, the major players in the U.S. menstrual products market were competing fiercely for customers but running out of technological advances to trumpet. To stand out, companies came up with more and more ways to offer their customers discreet purchase, use, and disposal options.
But as the tide turned toward disposable, portable products, and as the products themselves shrank in size, the packaging focus shifted toward individual wrapping. Menstruators needed to be able to throw products in a bag and keep them clean, to carry them from desk to restroom, and then from restroom stall to waste container.
That meant plastic wrapping for everything. There are plastics to help with that part of the process, too. In some public restrooms, little packets of scented plastic baggies sit on the bathroom stall walls, ready to enclose and disguise used sanitary products on their short path from stall to trash bin.
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